Fiction Review: Blindsight by Peter Watts

BlindsightA laser is asked to find darkness in a dark room. This will be easy, thinks the laser, how hard can it be to find what I’m surrounded by? Yet wherever the laser looks, all it sees is light.

The characters of Blindsight are not searching for darkness but for the nature of consciousness, which is what prompts a cantankerous biologist to come up with the parable of the laser in the first place. For while Blindsight is, on the surface, a classic space opera complete with mysterious aliens and a colourful crew captained by a vampire – whose existence is explained through creative palaeogenetics –  what sets Blindsight apart is that the vampires and aliens are really there for an exploration of the nature of consciousness.

The exploration starts in the mind of the narrator, Siri. His partial lobotomy has taken his ability to engage emotionally, but given him a talent for distilling peoples’ meanings from their words without colouring them with his own prejudices and interpretations. He’s so good at it that he’s packed off with crew of misfits to investigate a large alien somewhere beyond the orbit of Jupiter – beyond which, we’re told, nobody gets to goes without being at least a little vampire.

Siri’s crewmates have all augmented themselves to thrive in their chosen specialities in an age when computers are so smart that they’ve left nothing useful for unaugmented people to do. As Siri gets to know their ‘topology’, as he calls it, it becomes more apparent that their augments have left each of them with a consciousness that is not exactly baseline human.

Between them, they need to work out the intentions of an enormous alien entity calling itself Rorschach, which is as big as a decent sized moon. In case that isn’t hard enough for the characters to get their enhanced heads around, Rorschach incorporates a powerful electromagnetic field that interacts with neural impulses to leave the characters feeling like they’re working their way through the casebook of Oliver Sachs.

Blindsight asked me to make a certain amount of effort to keep up, and not because there’s anything difficult about the prose. Several times, I found myself having to read a passage twice to make sure I knew what was going on. By the time I finished the novel, I was left with many questions to make up my own mind about. Was Siri really as emotionally disengaged as he thought he was and if he wasn’t, how trustworthy were his impressions of the other characters? Was the vampire really in command or was it merely the acceptable voice of one of those annoyingly smart computers? Were the other crew making their own decisions or were the effects of that electromagnetic field less random and more lasting than they appreciated? Did Rorschach understand the joke inherent in choosing its name?

And ultimately, was Rorschach conscious or merely going through the motions? Because the only way to answer that question is to work out what consciousness really is, if it means anything at all beyond simply describing the way Homo sapiens happens to process sensory input.

It’s the mark of great literature that it can be an utterly engrossing read while leaving such fundamental questions in its wake.

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Posted in Book review: fiction, Wednesday Pontification

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